Football is a game of matchups. On Sunday, the 49ers cornerbacks will be tested, unlike in any other game this season. So will the Niners' offensive line, as Minnesota’s head coach Mike Zimmer, will blitz Jimmy Garoppolo — as he did Aaron Rodgers — and make him beat his defense through the air.
Here are the 49ers' three greatest matchup advantages ahead of Sunday’s playoff-like game.
The Vikings can’t stop the run
Minnesota has struggled to stop the run this year. It’s only gotten worse since Week 5. According to RBSDM, Minnesota’s 30th in defensive rushing EPA and 24th in defensive rushing success rate during that timeframe. That tells you opposing offenses aren’t struggling on a down-to-down basis or breaking longer gains against the Vikings.
Kyle Shanahan was unsure whether Elijah Mitchell would be active this Sunday. Here’s what he said about Mitchell’s status Monday:
“We thought he was going to have a chance earlier in the week, but we could see he wasn’t close by the time we got to Sunday. I’m not going to guess this week. I know he couldn’t go today, so we’ll see how he is on Wednesday and just take it day-by-day.”
The theme these past two weeks has been defenses playing a 6-1 look in the box, covering up the 49ers linemen, and making the running backs read the correct hole or make somebody miss 1-on-1.
You wouldn’t know it by the score, but San Francisco struggled to run the ball against Jacksonville. The offense had a success rate of 39%, but if you only count Jeff Wilson and Trey Sermon’s carries, the duo had a negative EPA per play with a 23% success rate.
Deebo Samuel isn’t getting the ball because he's a “change of pace” type of runner. He’s getting the ball because he’s the next best runner. Wilson and Sermon struggled to get north and south. That looked unsure where to go. Wilson was fortunate Jauan Jennings recovered his fumble, too.
Having Mitchell on the field would be a big boost for the 49ers running game. It’s evident that he’s the best running back between the three, and it’s not close. Still, the Vikings missing their 330-pound nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson makes life easier on San Francisco’s offensive line.
I don’t believe Minnesota has the horses upfront or the speed at the second level to stop the 49ers running game, no matter who’s at running back.
Zimmer doesn’t trust his cornerbacks. That’s been apparent in every game this season. How do I know? Minnesota runs Cover 2 on obvious passing downs to hide (protect) its corners.
On a 3rd & 12 last Sunday against the Packers, their receiver is 1-on-1 with a safety. Green Bay took advantage with a 39-yard gain. During last Sunday’s game against Green Bay, Minnesota allowed gains through the air of 37, 13, 39, 17, 12, 15, 13, 12, 17, 13, 26, 18, and 75.
Since Week 5, the Vikings have allowed the 8th-most passing plays to go for 15 or more yards. Green Bay’s game wasn’t an outlier.
Jimmy Garoppolo must give his receivers a chance down the field. He has to be willing to throw it into tight windows as he did against the Jaguars. The opportunities will be there, but so will the pressure.
Zimmer loves to show and bring pressure. The Vikings are third in the NFL in pressure percentage at 28% and third in adjusted sack rate. Not only do they get pressure, but they get home.
The 49ers' offensive line has done a tremendous job this season. Garoppolo has been pressured on 19% of his dropbacks, which is 30th in the NFL. Jimmy is completing 66% of his passes against pressure this season. If he gets the ball out and into his playmakers' hands, San Francisco can do what every other offense has done against the Vikings: Score at will.
They don’t all have to be deep shots down the sideline. Screens and slants are equally as effective. Not only do the Vikings struggle to cover, but their safeties are average tacklers at best.
Take advantage of the Cousins mistake
On the surface, the Vikings are fourth in the NFL in turnover differential at +6, and their quarterback has an incredible 21/2 touchdown to interception ratio. I’m calling BS. Cousins is having a fantastic year, and I don’t want to seem like I’m taking that away from him. Let’s just say he’s had some...luck. He’s fumbled six times but only lost one. And while he only has two interceptions, it seems like the opposing defense drops one a game.
Last week, Packers safety Darnell Savage had three interceptions negated. One came on a roughing the passer. Another came on a penalty, while the final interception Savage didn’t complete the catch through the ground.
Cousins will give the 49ers' defensive backs a chance to make a play because he’s going to give his receivers a chance to make a play. There will undoubtedly be a fadeaway 50/50 ball to Justin Jefferson — perhaps once a quarter. He’s going to force the ball to Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
The question becomes, will the Niners secondary be up to the task.